Astrocytic control of extracellular GABA drives circadian timekeeping in the suprachiasmatic nucleus

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 May 23;120(21):e2301330120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2301330120. Epub 2023 May 15.


The hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is the master mammalian circadian clock. Its cell-autonomous timing mechanism, a transcriptional/translational feedback loop (TTFL), drives daily peaks of neuronal electrical activity, which in turn control circadian behavior. Intercellular signals, mediated by neuropeptides, synchronize and amplify TTFL and electrical rhythms across the circuit. SCN neurons are GABAergic, but the role of GABA in circuit-level timekeeping is unclear. How can a GABAergic circuit sustain circadian cycles of electrical activity, when such increased neuronal firing should become inhibitory to the network? To explore this paradox, we show that SCN slices expressing the GABA sensor iGABASnFR demonstrate a circadian oscillation of extracellular GABA ([GABA]e) that, counterintuitively, runs in antiphase to neuronal activity, with a prolonged peak in circadian night and a pronounced trough in circadian day. Resolving this unexpected relationship, we found that [GABA]e is regulated by GABA transporters (GATs), with uptake peaking during circadian day, hence the daytime trough and nighttime peak. This uptake is mediated by the astrocytically expressed transporter GAT3 (Slc6a11), expression of which is circadian-regulated, being elevated in daytime. Clearance of [GABA]e in circadian day facilitates neuronal firing and is necessary for circadian release of the neuropeptide vasoactive intestinal peptide, a critical regulator of TTFL and circuit-level rhythmicity. Finally, we show that genetic complementation of the astrocytic TTFL alone, in otherwise clockless SCN, is sufficient to drive [GABA]e rhythms and control network timekeeping. Thus, astrocytic clocks maintain the SCN circadian clockwork by temporally controlling GABAergic inhibition of SCN neurons.

Keywords: GABA; GABA transporters; astrocytes; circadian rhythms; suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Circadian Clocks* / genetics
  • Circadian Rhythm* / genetics
  • GABA Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Mammals / metabolism
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / metabolism
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • GABA Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid